House Approves Four Business-Friendly OSHA Changes

The Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives has approved measures that would allow small employers to recover legal fees whenever they successfully challenge an OSHA citation, give companies more time to challenge OSHA citations, and expand the size and authority of the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (OSHRC).

It appears unlikely that the Senate will pass any of the bills because no companion legislation has been introduced and Republicans control that chamber by a narrower margin.

House Republicans nevertheless pushed ahead May 18 with the legislation, sponsored by Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., contending it was narrowly crafted to level the playing field between OSHA and U.S. companies.

The bill that would allow businesses with 100 employees or less to recover legal costs when they beat an OSHA citation in court (H.R. 2731) appeared to provoke the hottest controversy during the House debate.

Currently, employers can recover legal costs if the owner successfully challenges a citation, but if OSHA can establish that its enforcement action was "substantially justified," businesses can be refused compensation. H.R 2731 would eliminate this exception.

Supporters of the bill argued that from 1981 to 2004, small employers recovered costs from OSHA only 37 times. Opponents countered this shows that most OSHA citations are justified

"When dealing with OSHA many small employers are forced to fold their tent and give up because they can't afford the price of justice," argued Norwood during the debate on the House floor. "This is simply about justice and fairness to small business owners."

Democrats countered that H.R. 2731 would chill OSHA enforcement and undermine workplace protections.

"This is effectively a repeal of the OSH Act," asserted Rep. Robert Andrews, D-N.J. "The only cases OSHA is going to bring are the ones it is certain it is going to win - this will radically cut back on its ability to protect the American worker."

The House later approved the measure easily by a vote of 233 to194. The vote on the four bills fell along party lines: only a handful of Republicans voted against the legislation while few Democrats supported it.

The other three OSHA-related bills passed by House have the following provisions:

  • H.R. 2728, which passed 255 to 177, gives OSHRC the authority to let employers contest an OSHA citation if they miss the 15-day deadline to file a response;
  • H.R. 2729, approved by a vote of 228 to 199, increases the membership on the Review Commission from three to five, in order to increase the speed with which it can review cases;
  • H.R. 2730, which was passed by the narrowest margin of the four bills: 224 to 204. It would require courts to give deference to OSHRC's decisions on citations and its interpretation of OSHA law, as opposed to OSHA's own positions on such issues, when a judge determines the commission's decisions are reasonable.
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